20 November 2017

Win a Copy of The Dusty Bookcase!

Part of this past weekend was spent writing a new Dusty Bookcase column for the next issue of Canadian Notes & Queries. This time out I'm reviewing a book by W.E.D. Ross, Canada's most prolific novelist. The man is known to have written at least 358 novels, most of which were published under pseudonyms like Rose Dana, Rose Williams, Ruth Dorset, Olin Ross, and Jane Rossiter. As "Marilyn Ross" he penned thirty-two Dark Shadows tie-ins, including:

The book I reviewed for CNQ is not Barabas, Quentin and Dr. Jekyll's Son, but it is one of W.E.D. Ross novels below.

In the spirit of the season, I'm giving away a copy of my new book, The Dusty Bookcase, to a lucky person who guesses correctly which title is the subject of my next column. Send me the title via email – the address is in my Blogger profile – and, if correct, I'll enter your name in a draw. The winner will be announced next Monday.

Bon chance!

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13 November 2017

Twenty-three Centuries of Freaky Fridays

Grandma's Little Darling
Stephen R. George
New York: Zebra, 1990
320 pages

Horror hasn't much figured here, yet the genre dominated my adolescent reading. James Herbert was my favourite author; there was something in the rhythm to his work – one chapter focusing on horror, the next on sex, then back to horror, then sex – that appealed. One particular passage from his second novel, The Fog, was read over and over. I would blush in revealing which one.

Other novelists of those awkward teenage years included Max Ehrlich (The Reincarnation of Peter Proud), Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose), Stephen King (Carrie), Colin Wilson (The Space Vampires), Christopher Isherwood (Frankenstein: The True Story), Peter Benchley (Jaws), Richard Woodley (It's Alive), Arthur Herzog (The Swarm), Jeffrey Konvitz (The Sentinel), John Farris (The Fury), John  Russo (Night of the Living Dead), David Seltzer (The Omen), and Joseph Howard (Damien: Omen II). I'm tempted to include The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson... but, you know, it's a true story.

The only Canadian horror novel I read, Satan's Bell, was written by  Joy Carroll, a woman better known as the co-author of a pink-coloured book of etiquette entitled Mind Your Manners. It was published in 1954 by Harlequin.

We Canadians were slow to capitalize on the horror paperback craze. The first to make repeated stabs was Michael Slade with Headhunter and Ghoul, but these were published in the mid-eighties, by which the market had begun to wane and my interest had vanished. The decade was almost over when Stephen R. George, appeared on the scene. His debut novel, Brain Child, was published in 1989, as were his second (Beasts) and third (Dark Miracle). The following  year saw Dark Reunion and Grandma's Little Darling, a novel I bought for its cover illustration. A riff on Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whister's Mother), it had me thinking that the novel might be set in nineteenth-century New England or Victorian London.

I was wrong.

Grandma's Little Darling begins twenty-three centuries ago in the Egyptian boudoir of Lamena, trophy wife of wealthy merchant Fasim Konar. Once "the most beautiful woman in Sandakla," she's been overtaken by her daughter Maline. Such is the girl's beauty that it has attracted the eyes of Riamon, a prince from neighbouring Zhima. Lamena cannot deny the signs of aging reflected in her polished silver looking glass.

Deepening lines calling for desperate measures, she visits the wizard Yashim. "I want to become young again," says she. "I want the life my daughter is about to have."

On the condition that he be granted access to Prince Riamon's court – "I long for the company of men." – Yashid casts a spell that will make it so mother and daughter switch bodies. On what would have been her wedding day, Maline awakens in horror to find herself in her mother's body, being caressed by her father.

Prince Riamon is pleased because his new wife, though clearly a virgin, exhibits "expertise in the bedchamber." True, every once in awhile he wonders about his young wife's mature ways... but, you know, "expertise in the bedchamber." Besides, the prince is exhausted.

Lamena’s downfall comes when she betrays Yashim. Concerned that the wizard will blab, she has him banished from the court. As might be predicted, this causes Yashim to do the very thing she sought to prevent. The wizard tells Riamon that his bride’s body is occupied by his mother-in-law, adding that Lamena is now able to leap from body to body.

The two search the palace, ending up in the common room of all the prince’s wives. There they find Maline – or the body of Maline – foaming at the mouth. Lamena has moved on!

“Wizard, you have brought evil to this place, and you shall pay for it,” says the prince. To be safe, he has his other wives taken to the courtyard, where they are soaked in pitch and set alight. Having fled to the body of a newborn girl, Lamena hears their screams.

This is all part of a prologue lasting less than six pages. It’s a lot to take in, though readers are afforded more than enough chance to catch their breaths in the sluggish pages that follow.

The first chapter skips to fin du millénaire – the last one – and the Minneapolis Children’s Home, where we’re introduced to twelve-year-old Nora Harris, the girl depicted on the cover in Ruth Bader Ginsburg garb. Four years earlier, her parents and only sibling were killed. She’s had a rough go of it ever since. Social worker Cheryl Gibson has been doing her best to place the girl with couples interested in adoption, but nothing has quite worked out. Nora is about to begin her seventh placement in suburban Minneapolis. She’s told this is her last chance, so the pressure is on. Prospective parents the Johnsons are okay, and their son, Buddy, proves a pal, but Grandma – everyone calls her Grandma – looks to be a challenge.

Recently widowed, Grandma has suffered a stroke or something that has left her not quite right. What really happened is that Lamena has taken over her body… and now has her sights set on Nora!


Because I no longer read horror novels, and don’t remember much of those tackled in my teens, my criticisms may be unfair:

  • Prologue aside, the first half of the novel is slow and repetitious; the horrific is pretty much limited to old lady smells;
  • Lemena aside, the characters – Nora Harris, Dr Gibson, the Millers, and the Johnsons – are as unique as their surnames;
  • Cheryl’s live-in boyfriend just happens to be the editor of Unnatural Journal, a newsletter devoted to the paranormal.

Because I'm all about being fair, credit is due the author in setting the climax in the shopping court of  Minneapolis’s IDS Centre (which looks to be a special kind of hell).

There's also a bit of a twist ending. George gives a few too many hints in advance, but it is interesting. The most intriguing part of the novel comes mid-point with the revelation that Lemena had been found out a century earlier – resulting in the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper.

Seems a brilliant idea for a novel. Has it been written?

As I say, I no longer read horror novels.

Favourite passage:
She kept thinking of Nora. Of the girl, trapped inside that old woman’s body. Of the thing inside Nora’s body.
     Oh, God, what a story.
     Even if others did not believe her, she could not leave the situation as it was. She owed it to Nora to do something.
     The question was what?

Object and Access: A cheap mass market paperback with raised gold foil. Sadly, the cover illustration is uncredited.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, but that's it as far as our libraries are concerned. Those looking to purchase a copy will find five listed for sale online beginning at US$7.50. The second cheapest is listed at US$11.52. The remaining three copies range in price from US$52.43 to US$134.45. Needless to say, condition is not a factor.

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11 November 2017

A Poet Remembers Fallen Great War Poets: McCrae, Langstaff, Trotter, Seeger and Kilmer

John Douglas Logan
1869 - 1929
On Remembrance Day, verse from one who survived in memory of those who did not.

The New Apocalypse and Other Poems of Days and Deeds in France
T.C. Logan
Halifax: T.C. Allen, 1917

07 November 2017

The Dusty Bookcase in Publishers Weekly

Reviewed in this week in Publishers Weekly, a book for readers "who would like to acquaint themselves with Canadian literature outside the canon, as well as those who will enjoy a highly idiosyncratic and striking selection of the lesser known." Read the review here!

PW advises that you would do well to pick it up.

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30 October 2017

CNQ at 100

It doesn't seem right to describe the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries as special – every issue is special – but this one, the one hundredth issue, marks a remarkable milestone. That it did so in its fiftieth year is both a reflection of an often precarious past and its stability this past decade under publisher Dan Wells.

I came on board with my first Dusty Bookcase column in issue 81 (Spring 2010). My subject back then was The Miracle Man, the very first book I'd ever read by Frank L. Packard. This time around, the column takes the form of an investigative update on thriller writer and passer of forged cheques Kenneth Orvis (a/k/a Kenneth LeMieux). His is not exactly a household name, though regular readers may remember my reviews of his debut, Hickory House (1956), and Cry Hallelujah! (1970), his greatest flop.

I've also contributed an essay, "For All Its Faults," which has been described by historian Christopher Moore as an evisceration of the killing of the New Canadian Library. In this unpleasant task I was supported by Daniel Donaldson's razor sharp editorial cartoon.

On a related note – two, actually – my daughter Astrid provides an editorial cartoon to "Hints and Allegations," a chapter from Elaine Dewar's GG-nominated The Handover, the shameful story of how it was our country's greatest publisher was given away to a foreign multinational.

Also featured is Andreae Callanan's "The Xenotext's Woman Problem," winner of this year's CanLit Crit Essay Contest. Nick Mount writes on CanLit's beginnings, Anna Porter shares memories of McClelland & Stewart as it was in the 'seventies, and Jim Polk looks at fifty years of the House of Anansi. In "Will Anyone Care?" Mark Sampson lays bare his obsession to preserving his work. The issue is rounded out by contributions from Seth, Pierre Nepveu (translated by Donald Winkler), Robert Wringham, Mary H. Auerbach Rykov, Mark Bourrie, Kamal Al-Solaylee, Jason Dickson, David Huebert, David Mason, J.C. Sutcliffe, Rohan Maitzen, André Forget, Alex Good, Bruce Whiteman, Stephen Fowler.

More information can be found here at the CNQ website. And this link will take you to the subscription page, which will bring you issues 101, 102, and 103.

Every one special.

26 October 2017

The New Apocalypse: Passchendaele

On the centenary of the Second Battle of Passchendaele, verse by John Douglas Logan, 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders, from his second volume, The New Apocalypse and Other Poems of Days and Deeds in France (Halifax: T.C. Allen, 1917):

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23 October 2017

Our Stephen

In anticipation of All Hallow's Eve, five favourite Stephen R. George covers, beginning with 1989's Nightscape. As with all other George titles it was published by Kensington Publishing's Zebra imprint.

I get the impression that children don't have an easy time of it in the author's fiction. I could be wrong. I'm only a few pages into my first Stephen R. George, a book bought for its cover... which is not featured here. You'll have to wait. Torment.

A bonus:

Creature nel cervello [Brain Child]
Milan: Mondadori, 1991

16 October 2017

A Great War Veteran's Pre-War Thriller

Black Feather
Benge Atlee
New York: Scribners, 1939
345 pages
The weapons Britain is supplying to its Arab allies are somehow ending up in the hands of Eastern European fascists and the Foreign Office is not amused. One man, Gerald Burke, is called upon to put a stop to it. An Oxford-educated archeologist-turned-adventurer, Burke seems a good choice; he knows the region, has a good number of contacts, and hails from rural Nova Scotia (Chignecto, it is implied). What's more, Burke comes with Abdula el Zoghri, a manservant who has a talent for getting out of tight spots. 
After accepting the assignment, our hero returns to his Bloomsbury Square flat to find a warning in the form of a black feather, quill-upwards, protruding from the brass plaque bearing his name. The fact that they're onto him doesn't deter Burke from his mission. Burke makes for Marseilles, and is booking passage to Salonika when a pretty Russian girl literally falls into his arms. He knows she's a spy, Zoghri knows she's a spy, and yet they're happy to play along.
So begins my review of Black Feather, the lone novel by war hero and sometime pulp writer Harold Benge Atlee (1890-1978). You can read the entire piece here – gratis – at the Canadian Notes & Queries site.

Object: A solid, somewhat bulky book in bright yellow boards. My copy was a gift from James Calhoun, with whom I wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Peregrine Acland's Great War novel All Else is Folly. This year, James contributed the introduction to the reissue of second novel of the conflict, God's Sparrows by Philip Child.

Access: Five Canadian university libraries have copies, but not Dalhousie, at which he studied and later served as Professor and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Our public libraries – Library and Archives Canada included – fail entirely

The Scribners edition is the only edition. It enjoyed a single printing. Only three copies are listed for sale online – US$30 to US$50 – none of which feature the dust jacket.